The poem focuses on an Boston fire-fighter’s headgear, symbolic of a breed seen as god-like ‘supermen’ risking their lives for society. It was presented ‘formally’ to Heaney in an informal ceremony in Boston. The poem celebrates human solidarity.
A helmet; its owner; its provenance: a Boston fireman’s gift; the name printed boldly on its spread / Fantailing brim / … shoulder-awning.
The eye is drawn upwards. The helmet shows evidence of its energetic use and design: Tinctures of sweat and hair oil /… withered sponge and shock-absorbing webs; the dome of the helmet: not crown (civilian) but crest, for crest it is (proud classical symbol of ‘military’ prowess) with its very particular construction; above all strong, steel-ridged and individual: hand-tooled, hand-sewn. It is held together at the top with a reminder of military armour of the past: a little bud of beaten copper.
A badged helmet ceremoniously presented to him as visiting fireman twenty years before by a fellow fireman ‘poet’ (Heaney modestly returns the compliment) and proudly retained; a symbol, too, of the solid and self-sacrificial mind-set: ‘the headgear/ Of the tribe’, handed over jovially one afternoon in right heroic mood. America is justly proud of its ‘heroes’ and the poet chooses his adjective deliberately as he enters into the spirit of the event.
Flattered by any association Heaney, is stutteringly modest, as if …as if.. He has not served time under this helmet and symbol of classical nobility, this fire-thane’s shield.
He pictures the active circumstances of a fire and its falling debris. The helmet and its wearer are determinedly resistant but sadly not indestructible: Til the hard-reared shield wall broke.
- Original footage, documentaries and docudramas following 9/11 heralded the selfless bravery of the New York Fire Department; they also showed its equipment, especially the standard fire helmet, in which Heaney has discovered ‘poem-life’.
- Bobby Breen was a Boston fireman; pictures of 9/11 and memories of the huge number of firemen who perished in the disaster have lent new honour to his helmet;
- The Boston fireman’s helmet represents a body of men pitted against the elements;
- 7 tercets with lines of widely varying length; in 2 main units with sub-sections; strong use made of enjambed lines give the narrative its own impetus;
- assonant effects: [ɪ] his/gift/ in/ its/ brim/ Tinctures/ withered ; [e] spread/ sweat / better/ crest/ leather; a cluster of vowel [o] variants: oil/ sponge/ shock-absorbing/ crown; [æ] hand/ hand; [e] and [ɪə], alveolar sounds in sequence: helmet’s/ shelf/ twenty / years/ headgear ; [ai] and [ɪ] in combination over 6 lines: right heroic/ fireman/ it/ visiting fireman; if/ I/ it/ if / I/ time/ it/ his fire-/ His/ while; [əʊ] bolts/ hose/ broke;
- accompanying alliterative clusters: [b] Bobby Breen’s/ Boston; absorbing/ webs; other consonant groups in tandem: voiceless alveolar plosive [t] and dental fricatives [θ] and [ð] Tinctures/ sweat/ withered/ beneath/ better/ crest/ Leather-trimmed/ steel/tooled; bilabial effects: Tipped/ bud/ beaten/ copper; alveolar [r]: right heroic/ afternoon/ fireman/ presented; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] (sh) mimics the sound of falling materials: shield/ shoulder/ shattering/ shield; aspirate [h] hailed/ hatchet/ hose;
- Heaney’s way is to scrutinise familiar objects for their accumulation of meaning – a stove-lid, a turnip-snedder, a railway sleeper, a fireman’s helmet, a bricklayer’s trowel. The last two items witness Heaney’s long absorption in the Classics: both are used to reveal soldierly virtues benevolently applied to a peacetime world.Sean O’Brien Friday, 7 April 2006